Accommodate Disabilities: Yes! But, Attendance Still Counts.

On September 16, 2013, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) issued a decision holding that an employer was not required to allow excessive absenteeism as an accommodation to a diabetic employee.  The case, MCAD v. Affiliated Professional Services is discussed below.

What You Need To Know.  While an employer needs to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, an employee still needs to come to work often enough to perform his or her job.  Unlimited sick time is not a reasonable accommodation and will not be required by the MCAD.  In addition, an employer does not have to accommodate a disability that disrupts the workforce.

An employee of Affiliated Professional Services (“APS”) suffered from diabetes. Unfortunately, the employee’s diabetes was almost uncontrolled and the employee suffered from frequent bouts of hypoglycemia and loss of consciousness.  This caused the employee to be tardy or leave early frequently and she was absent up to 30 days each year.  In addition, on several occasions, the employee became drowsy, confused, or unconscious during work.  Because of this, co-workers at APS were required to monitor the employee’s condition and had to call and ambulance at least three times.  APS ultimately terminated the employee’s job for safety reasons and because the employee was absent so often.

The MCAD ruled that the termination was legal because the employee’s excessive absenteeism made her no longer qualified for her job.  It is not reasonable for an employee to be absent an excessive amount.  In addition, the MCAD found that, when she was present at work, her uncontrolled diabetes made her unable to function and disruptive to the workforce.  While many people with diabetes, with minimal accommodations, can monitor and adjust their blood sugar levels and work, this employee became a safety risk because she could not monitor and maintain her health.  Based upon these facts, the MCAD held that APS had the right to terminate her employment because she was unable to perform her job.

The MCAD noted favorably that APS had taken numerous measures to accommodate the employee prior to termination.  The company allowed excessive absenteeism and tardiness for over two years, it transferred the employee to a new position, and offered the employee a medical leave of absence.  By offering these accommodations, APS demonstrated a willingness to work with the employee and help keep her working.  The MCAD accepted this as evidence of APS’s good faith and held that APS did not discriminate against the employee on the basis of her handicap.

This case demonstrates the importance of providing reasonable accommodations to employees with a disability.  Once a disability overwhelms an employee’s ability to perform his or her job, however, courts allow companies to terminate the person’s employment.

If you have an employee whose medical condition is making it difficult to perform the essential functions of his or her job, you should take steps to provide reasonable accommodations to help the employee stay at work.  But, you do not have to tolerate extreme absence or disruption.  EmCo Consulting can help you evaluate how best to accommodate an employee with a disability and can offer support in the event that no reasonable accommodation is possible.  Please contact us if you have questions about this topic.